Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In streaming media res

It's wall-to-wall displacement activity here at Thompson Towers. I'm trying to finish a couple of (as yet barely-begun) pieces for my gig on Saturday: it's my first poetry reading in over two years -- details are over there on the right, if you're going to be in London at the weekend and you feel like spending twenty minutes of it being shouted at by a fat man in a crumpled shirt (and why wouldn't you?) -- so I'm hoping to have some rock'n'roll fun with it. But it's too hard, the writing bit, that's partly why I withdrew myself from the fray for a while. So I'm training as much of my attention as possible on other things, in the hope that some fairytale scenario will eventually transform the poem-making labour: a Rumplestiltskin-style collaborative effort one night, say, or chancing to happen upon a golden Geoff Ward poem lying in the snow which I can take home and show to my four-in-a-bed grandparents.

Annoyingly, the most productive imaginable alternative tasks (aside from curing cancer or ridding the world of Chris Moyles) would also involve heavy-duty writing. I have a backlog of five theatre shows to review, and three films, and I want to write something about privateness in art... Oh, well, soon come, soon come.

In the meantime, a little bit of unobtrusive late-spring cleaning here: I've finally changed the playlist in the Gevorts Box widget to your right. Naughty of me to leave the last lot up so long. So here is the new tracklisting -- and the same provisos as before: if you own any of these tracks and want them removed, just yell. It's quite a random grab-bag but I should hope there's something to tickle most palates.

01 Max de Wardener: 'Hundreds and Thousands', from Where I Am Today (Accidental)

02 Tiny Masters of Today: 'Stickin' It to the Man', from Bang Bang Boom Cake (Mute)

03 Mutya Buena: 'Fast Car', from the compilation Radio 1 Established 1967 (Sony)

04 Hi-Speed: 'Animocosica Balts', from Eroika Con Animac Planetico (Creative Man)

05 The Flying Lizards: 'Hands 2 Take', from Fourth Wall (Virgin)

06 Cody: 'Rounder', cd single (Shinkansen)

07 The Bird and the Bee: 'Fucking Boyfriend', from The Bird and the Bee (Blue Note)

08 Richard Sanderson: 'Dealing in Absolutes [DJ Wrongspeed remix]', from the archive of tracks at Richard's Baggage Reclaim site

09 Giorgio Moroder: 'Rotwang's Party (Robot Dance)', the B-side of Freddie Mercury's single 'Love Kills' (CBS)

10 Spring Heel Jack [feat. Evan Parker]: 'Lata', from The Sweetness of the Water (Thirsty Ear)

11 Peter Bellamy with Dave Swarbrick: 'The Maid of Australia', from Both Sides Then (Fledgling)

12 The Owls: 'Isaac Bashevis Singer', from Daughters and Suns (Magic Marker)

13 Mike Sophia: 'Cow', from the WFMU 365 Days project

14 Bobby Vinton: 'Mr Lonely', from the not-yet-released soundtrack of Harmony Korine's awesome new film of the same name, and/or any bargain-bin Bobby Vinton Best Of near you

15 Ivor Cutler: 'The River Bends', from a bootleg of the BBC Radio 3 series King Cutler

16 Keiji Haino: 'You Who Will In No Way, I Who Can In No Way', from A Challenge to Fate (Disques du Soleil)

17 Subtle: 'F.K.O.', from A New White (Lex)

18 Tod Dockstader: 'Shout', from Aerial vol.1 (Sub Rosa)

19 So [Markus Popp + Eriko Toyoda]: 'Untitled D', from So (Thrill Jockey)

20 Yamaha Music Foundation: 'The Salad Song', from the WFMU 365 Days project

If that's not enough of an ear-bashing for you, you might be interested to visit the archives of Bookworm at the KCRW web site, which I stumbled upon today. First we'd better define our terms for those to whom they are unfamiliar: KCRW is the national public radio station that broadcasts from the campus of Santa Monica College in California; among the many important and useful programmes under its aegis are Nic Harcourt's Morning Becomes Eclectic (for which I developed a deep affection when I was briefly in or around LA the best part of a decade ago), Harry Shearer's rambling Le Show, and Bookworm, a regular half-hour programme in which significant contemporary authors are interviewed by Michael Silverblatt. Silverblatt sometimes sounds a bit like a Frank Oz-voiced creatureshop fantasy, it's odd to think he's only in his mid 50s. But that's largely beside the point. He is an astoundingly acute, curious, virtuosic reader of texts, meaning that he is able not only to ask the right questions but also, quite frequently, to propose to his interviewees some perspective on their work that is fresh to them and that they immediately and gratefully recognize.

So I was trawling for critical stuff on Miranda July yesterday, and that's how I came across the Bookworm archive. There is a free podcast from the KCRW site or via iTunes, and recent epiosdes are always available for download -- the current roster includes William Gibson, Michael Ondaatje, and a Kurt Vonnegut re-run, along with July, as well as lots of other writers who I'm sure are just as interesting if you like that kind of stuff... But the whole archive at the KCRW web site is also worth spending some serious time with. Unfortunately the archived interviews are Realaudio streams only, so you can't download them (unless you have some superscary bit of Russian mobster crackware or something). But as free online resources go it's pretty remarkable. I spent most of yesterday afternoon listening to four interviews with Dennis Cooper, spanning four different publications and several years: a really fascinating and instructive experience. Go make friends with the search box, and if your favourite Major Novelist isn't there, I'll give you a satsuma. Five interviews with David Foster Wallace, anyone?

If your brow's coming in a bit lower now that the clocks have gone back -- mine certainly is, don't be ashamed -- then instead I leave you with a bit of sublime telly. As I think I may have mentioned in these pages only about 46,000,000 times, I don't have a tv, with the exception of a wretchedly unreliable tv card in my computer which only works when I can hang the stubby little aerial thing out of the open window, and is therefore a bother and also colder and more breezy than not watching tv. So this is normally the Amish part of the year for me, where I get on quietly with my needlepoint or catch up on some whittling. But a man in need of displacement activity can be pretty resourceful... It turns out that 4oD (which I don't think I recommend, but still...) has the whole first series of Skins free to download (with annoying built-in self-destruct as per Mission: Impossible), so I've been hugely and indulgently enjoying every moment of that, or at least every moment that doesn't feature horrible celebrity cameos from the likes of Neil Morrissey and Arabella Weir.

And I've also been keeping a close eye on YouTube for clips from The Peter Serafinowicz Show which has been going out on BBC2 on Thursdays for the past few weeks. I'm a huge, huge fan of the guy. (Eek. I said 'guy'. Well, he's kind of a 'guy' kind of guy.) From what I've seen, the show is every bit as hit-and-miss as the second series of Look Around You, but hit-and-miss is my middle name, so I'm happy to roll with it. The unmistakable collaborative hand of Robert Popper is easily detected in this spoof ad, which made me make embarrassing snorty laugh noises. I'm quite prepared to believe you will conversely sit stony-faced through the entire thing. It is awfully silly.

Right. Back to work. Seriously. See you Saturday, maybe?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Deposit Box pilot: 'The Books of the Pigs in thes Sieris'

Obviously I've yet to deliver on my promise, in my last-but-one post, of the launch, finally, of Deposit Box: a new annexe to the vaults here at Thompson's Bank O.C.D. wherein guest writers are invited to place for relatively safe keeping texts that might otherwise be lost or neglected or subject to the inscrutable buffets of The Great Vicissitude. (That's inscrutable buffets as in "I am being buffeted by forces I do not comprehend", not as in "I can't tell whether these are Scotch eggs or not".)

Well, instalment #1 is pretty much ready to go, but a slightly cooler and more cautious head has prevailed here at HQ: it seems sensible to start with a sort of dry run, to make sure everything's as it should be. So here first of all is a pilot edition of Deposit Box: for the purposes of which I humbly submit for your kind attentions a previously little-seen work of my own.

The Books of the Pigs in thes Sieris (unpublished, 1977) is, admittedly, by any reasonable measure, "juvenilia": but that said, it would, I think, be a pity for it to be dismissed out of hand, as some critics did at the time, as merely "very nice, dear". In it, surely, can be seen the seeds of my current practice in text-making, and the first adumbration of the preoccupations that have characterised both my literary endeavours over the past thirty years and my terrifying failure to sustain meaningful personal relationships during that time.

The complete manuscript of The Books of the Pigs in thes Sieris (hereinafter referred to, for the sake of brevity, as Pigs) is thumbnailed below: you may of course click on any of the frames for larger renderings of the scanned pages. The commentary I offer is not intended to preclude other readings, but simply to frame the territory that this work aims to occupy, and to sketch, wherever possible, a more-or-less candid recollection of my ambitions for what still seems to me, after all this time, quite a bracingly unconventional and provocative novella.

Immediately, one can see my (perhaps slightly overreaching) determination to assert the credentials of the work within a postmodern lineage: right from the get-go, the piece problematizes itself by announcing not "The Book" but "The Books". Is this to be some Oulipian faux-catalogue or library index, perhaps, of the kind that we might expect from, say, Perec? Will these "books" open themselves out within the fabric of my own work, will they take the proto-Borgesian form of a recursively embedded nest of books within books? How can one book contain many? Is everything that follows merely a sequence of advertisements for other, imagined books? The half-hidden word "series" seems to suggest that this last speculation may be on the right lines. If I remember correctly, I was at that time very much in thrall to the influence of the Mr Men books, and I am presumably intending to echo the back covers of those volumes, with their marshalled ranks of "other" Mr Men representing "other" lives, "other" possibilities, mildly signalled as (something like) "the other Mr Men books in the series". But this is not a back cover, but a front: its function is not to direct the temporarily satiated reader towards the populous realm of further consuming choices, away from the "book in hand", but to establish relations with the reader in terms of the content of this book. Pigs can, in other words, be considered not "this" book, after all, but another book in itself, indeed a whole set of notional books that are perpetually yet-to-come. This is, of course, what indicates and lies behind the meaning of "thes": I have been compelled here to coin a new deictically-inflected article halfway between "the" and "these": the "sieris" in question is neither quite definite nor quite here, but it is more not definite and not here than it is indefinite or is somewhere else entirely: in some imagined book depository, say, or down the back of the cooker.

One might easily be tempted to suppose that the disarray of "series" to make "sieris" is itself a sardonic self-reflexive commentary on received (or, rather, 'riecived') assumptions about the ordinal tendencies within any kind of serial organization of information, and indeed the work is responsive to such a reading, as we shall see. But if I remember correctly, my reference was more exactly to an identical misspelling in the earliest surviving manuscript draft of Henry James's The Tragic Muse, in which he refers to Gabriel "emitt[ing] a sieris [sic] of reflections which were even more ingenious than opportune." Quite so.

The text of Pigs is hand-lettered in feculent brown fibre-tip, recto only throughout, an arrangement which is prefigured in the composition above: the back cover is tantalisingly left blank, so as to throw more readerly attention onto the columns of minuscule printed text in the left-hand margin. As can clearly be seen here, Pigs is at least in part an exercise in politically motivated detournement, scrawled graffito-like, as it is, on headed A4 notepaper from the private bankers Tyndall & Co. ("an unlimited company"). With the names of the company's directors spelt out on the back of the book, does the strident image of "the pigs in thes sieris" come to take on a more obviously anti-capitalist resonance? That, of course, would be for the reader to decide; I couldn't possibly comment.

"How crude," writes J.H. Prynne in comparing 'our' Western modes with Chinese text, "to set the choice as text or graphics": and, in a sense, this is exactly the anxiety that troubles the heart of Pigs. Straight away, we find ourselves immersed in the body of the work, offered two apparently easily assimilated and mutually cross-confirming items: a caption, "A pigs nose" (I eschew the possessive apostrophe throughout: rather a childish affectation I now think, though the disruption of unexamined narratives of corporal and corporate ownership was well-intentioned at the time); and a drawing of a (perky, slightly idiosyncratic) circle or ellipse, circumscribing two dots for nostrils.

But if we linger even for a moment, instinctively aware perhaps that something here is not quite right, we are quickly susceptible to the quivering tensions that the work sets in motion with such cruelly deadpan esprit. This is not, after all, a caption, but a title: it has been elevated above the image to which it refers, and 'authenticates' or empowers that image rather than simply describing it. Language, in other words, is seen to dominate: and in this context, the power of the image alone, its ability to signify independently of language, is utterly dispelled. And yet language too must bear the brunt of extensive collateral damage. Sure, we see: this is not "a pigs nose", this is a picture of "a pigs nose". Equally, the words "a pigs nose" do not amount in themselves to "a pigs nose", nor to a picture as such, but simply to a game in language, the outcome of which is the idea of "a pigs nose". Text and graphic, once separated at a conceptual level, can never again be presumed to endorse each other, except in relation to some recognized 'third term' which is not here, but elsewhere.

And of course the book has already anticipated and, in a sense, undermined even this manoeuvre. Within the frame of its own insolubly ironizing titular proposition, it will not permit us to be sure whether the linguistic and pictorial signs that represent "a pigs nose" refer in fact to the real nose of a real pig, or merely, instead, to another book in "thes sieris", whose title or topic is "a pigs nose". If there are no things, but only a library of what we might call "reference books", that is to say, books which are able to refer, within themselves, only to other books which are not here, this is already, on page one, an abysmal virus within the operations of porcine epistemology (or, if we trust our more overtly satirical reading of the work, the interests of late capitalism itself).

So already, by page two, all bets are off. What, exactly, are we looking at here?

Is this "supposed to be" a drawing of a pig's ears? If so, it can hardly be called an instance of graphical verité. We might conclude that either the title/caption or the image itself is deliberately lying to us; but of course, there's a third possibility, lurking unnervingly behind the other two but no more conceptually remote than them: that both are lying at once. In other words, there is no categorical difference and no definitive distinction in logical terms between the conclusion that this is a picture of a pig's ears in which the pig's ears don't look much like pig's ears, and the equally valid assertion that this could be a picture of a fire engine, but one in which the image is wrong and the caption is also wrong.

Essentially, then, I am using the occasion of presenting an impossible-to-verify picture of "a pig's ears" (notice how I'm winking at the reader, as it were, through the reverberation of the idiom "a pig's ear" to mean a calamitous error or botch) to further dismantle the apparatus of significance at a textual level. I have already done everything necessary to make available, almost as a scoundrel's refuge, an interpretation reliant on what we might call the bibliogenic gambit: that is, for every turbulent or impossible proposition introduced by the text, a "book in the series" (perpetually elsewhere) may be invented to contain it. In other words, though in this case neither caption nor image can be "trusted" either in isolation or in interrelation, we have no problem imagining a book which reconciles the two and is not, itself, necessarily "in doubt". But the location of that book is unknown and terminally unknowable.

That something of this synthetic, fictionalising impulse is in accord with the text is clearly indicated by the apparent misspelling of "ears" as "eres". Perhaps we are to ask: what is an ere? To which the heavily ironic reply can be given: I don't know, but this is what it looks like (i.e. nothing like a pig's ear; perhaps, by extension, something accurate or faultless). I may possibly have been thinking of the quality of dread and foreboding as evinced at a material level in the famous line of Edward Lear -- "Ere the days of his pilgrimage vanish / How pleasant to know Mr Lear" -- but I rather suppose my principal intent here would have been to invoke the homophonic pun "hear"/"here", shaded behind "ear"/"ere". The act of audition has an orienting function: we're here because we hear we're here; but of course there is no "here" here, merely an infinite set of deferrals with a "sieris" of other books at its impossible destination. An "ere", in this context, would therefore be the organ used to not listen with. The pig in this particular poke is as deaf as a post-structuralist.

The final twist in this montage of radical, insoluble dubiety is, of course, that this, alone of all the pig-portions itemised in the book, is the only one referred to by the definite article. These are the "eres" not of a pig, but of the pig. (There is a half-submerged riddle here, surely: Why does "the" pig not lend us its "eres"? Because it's deaf, innit.) With youthful bravado I am rather cruelly satirising the reader's (and the farmer's) desire to engage at a generic level with an almost entirely conceptual pig: not the individuated pig, but a template, a dirty metonym if you will, wherein the particularity of one pig as opposed to another is blithely erased. But as we have seen, there is almost no reliable sense in which we encounter here anything more than the lack of "the" pig. Within the text: no pig. Within the image: no pig. Within the other book: less than a pig. This is, of course, precisely the meaning of that "the": it exports the pig itself wholly into some other, entirely provisional, text. The definite article is irretrievably stigmatised; "the" pig is, at most, some kind of phantasm: it is Banquo's ghost at the feast, representing Macbeth's guilty conscience. (Brodie's Notes on William Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', p.9.)

By this stage, I am, quite clearly, taking the piss.

Now, though, on page four, is the most surprising manoeuvre we've yet seen in this supremely ludic text. Suddenly, unexpectedly, we are confronted not with a region of a pig, but with "a pig" entire. It seems to come much too soon, for what we might perhaps have supposed would be the culminating frame. The reasons for this are, at this remove, sadly obscure to me. Was I perhaps lampooning the reader's inchoate desire for completeness, for closure, for going "the whole hog"; or even suggesting something about the way in which the conditions of capitalism both create that desire, pedagogically we might say, and require its vagueness, its incoherence, so that its ultimate fulfilment is always apparently probable but never actually possible? Is this not, after all, the basis upon which any given "little piggy" will go to market?

Clearly redolent of that sense of the compulsory desire that is still not yet quite formed, the picture of "a pig" is, once again, not quite all "there". Nebulous, spectral, this "pig" may remind us, above all, of the 'ghost' we last encountered on page two, where it was disguised as the word "the". Premature, "untimely ripped" (Brodie's Notes on William Shakespeare's 'Macbeth', p.11) from the realm of purely conceptual ideation, it is the apparition of some kind of protoplasmic jellyfish, adrift in a sea of white headed notepaper, with a weird sort of prong on its chin, in lieu of a deathly sting: or, more accurately, the drawing of such an apparition of a jellyfish. It is the not-quite embodiment of the not-yet actual, speculatively mapped in a non-space. And yet: only a complete twat could fail to notice the vast brown eye at the centre of this pig's huge head. A disquieting hybrid of Orwell's Big Brother and Terence Trent D'arby's Little Sister, this swirling vortex seems to represent both the penetrating gaze of remote authority and the infinitely penetrable goatseiform portal to all-knowing. It is as if a dense mass of textual information has collapsed in on itself to create a black (or, rather, brown) hole that threatens to consume us: in other words, this unblinking "eye" dramatizes both our appetite for the consumption of knowledge and our fear that we ourselves will be consumed by it.

So dominant is this feature that it is all too easy to overlook the other details by which this figure is characterised. Some merely tease: such as the pig's wry smile, somewhere between La Gioconda and Gerald Kaufman; the chin-prong, for opening soda bottles -- a complement, perhaps, to the corkscrew tail; the curious edge connector in the rear, looking somewhat like a socket wherein one might plug an electric shaver, and perhaps exposed only because of the migration of the anus to the epicentre of the body, where it both engulfs and is subsumed by the eye. Of especial interest to the critic, however, are two striking indicators. Firstly, note that the form of the pig is not quite closed: there is an aperture at what we might, in relation at any rate to the positioning of the mouth, take to be the back of the head: perhaps it is some kind of blowhole or perforated fontanelle. Significantly, this "pig" is therefore not a closed object, but an open system, participating in an imagined universe of all possible "pigs in thes sieris", but not hermetically distinguished from them. (A good test for this is to import the figure into Microsoft Paint and try to 'fill' it with colour.) The inside and the outside of the pig (including the non-pig and all other instances of the similarly open pig-system) are substantially continuous and identical. Thus, once again, the other pig is invoked through the radical non-closure of the pig-at-hand (cf. Lacan's porc actuel).

Secondly, it may be observed that the tail has apparently become detached from the body of the pig, and floats in space posterior to the creature itself. This could be (more or less) dismissed as simply another facetious commentary, arising out of the pun "tail" / "tale", and confirming that the textual body of the "pig"-book can no longer be expected to support any kind of narrative reading. (Well, duh. Wake up and smell Professor John Sutherland.) But I feel certain that my interest here must have been more in the spiral form of the tail. Hence --

-- this vertiginous zoom-in, on the next page, to the "taile" -- a doubly paronomasiac rendering in which not only is "tale" invoked, but the "i" (or "I"?) has itself grown a tail, and now quite clearly resembles a "u" (or "you"?), reinforcing the categorical collapse of the discrete individual that we have already seen invoked in the unclosed "pig" above, cavorting in its universal open field: and incidentally reminding us of the constant crypto-Lettrist slipperiness of this text machine: sausage in, sauvage out.

In a sense this is simply a coda, a tailpiece that follows the whole-pig apex of the previous page, just as the tail follows the pig. We might almost see the image as a post-climactic curlicue of cigarette smoke. But the far more obvious reading, contrariwise, is of a downward spiral, a helical plummet down a helter-skelter, at the end of which we are in freefall: a most apt metaphor for the reader's experience of this text. Where do we land?

Falling back to earth with a bump, we find ourselves once again confronted by the stark "realities" of plain text: though here, the sudden imperative mood is quite clearly intolerant of the multifarious types of ambiguity (I counted eight in all) that the rest of the book has so vivaciously fomented, from its similarly unadorned coverpage onwards. The instruction may at first glance appear to be a variation on the too-familiar closing trope, "I woke up and it was all a dream"; or an interrupted cadence triggered by the abrupt introduction of some outside influence, of -- in this case -- unusual, brutish force: a "Terminator from Porlock", as it were.

But this "Stop" sign does not have the effect of undermining or dissipating the fictive space that has been created before. This is not a bubble being burst or a nightmare from which we suddenly awake, nothing having happened of any lasting consequence. If anything, we are being held within the frame of the text: we find that 'the end' is, in this instance, a dead end; a cul, if you will, very much de sac. We are trapped, dagnabbit. Trapped like Colonel Abrams. How will we ever find a way out of this book? Is the reader to climb out of the pig's blowhole on p.4? Hardly: this isn't A.S. Byatt, you know. And even if we did, as I hope I have already shown, we would only find ourselves stranded in a universe that is entirely and limitlessly full of pig-essence, like some infinite literary Swindon.

It is, of course, a test. In the space of just six pages (including the cover), The Books of the Pigs in thes Sieris has lethally undermined the very notion of textual authority. Why should we obey this instruction? Why should we do as it tells us? Because some of it's in upper-case? What are you, some kind of bedwetter? Come off it. If it can lie to us about what may or may not be a picture of a pig's ears, surely it may be deceiving us about the extent of the actuality of this text? We can't go on; we'll go on.

The reader who dares to flip past this stern injunction will find herself in some kind of nether world of one, two, ...and so on up to six blank pages. What is the final, secret challenge of this text? What comes after the end of a book, but before the return to the world outside its frame? One might, I think, helpfully rephrase that question, so as more closely to approach my authorly concerns as I now recall them. We might instead ask: What kind of end comes before the physical extent of the book is exhausted? Am I, perhaps, directing the reader's attention not towards the material end of the text itself, but towards the teleological end of Pigs? Towards the purposive end of this work? Is "Stop END of BOOK" simply an intertitle or section heading which introduces that which follows it? And is it therefore in these six final blank pages that the book can be seen ultimately to divulge its motivating impulses? Here, deserted by the pigs, the reader confronts nothingness. What are the imperatives of this empty space? Is it to be preserved, gazed upon in fear or meditation? Is it a reflective space, a mirror-zone in which the reader encounters only herself looking back? Or is it un provocation supertemporel, a blank canvas upon which the reader may become the writer, inscribing her own pig-parts in this "sierial" fiction? What's clear is that, whichever way these pages are used -- whether their blankness is to be preserved and relished or interpreted as an invitation to participate -- they irresistibly suggest the implication and involvement of the reader in the universe of pigs: that is, the vast and chilly bibliographic universe of endlessly reflected and deflected other-pigs.

Stop END of POST.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Way upstream (a well-known ache, borne)

[I wrote this piece on October 10th, and then thought it both too slight and, in the end, too hysterical to bother posting it. But after a couple of energising days, and particularly a revivifying conversation this evening with the wonderful Tim Jeeves, I have found myself looking on it more kindly: so here it is. With a bit of luck, there will be a flurry of activity here in the next few days, but in the meantime...]

May I offer this diptych for your consideration?


I was at Toynbee Studios last night (or, as it emerged mangled from the memorybanks of one of my students earlier in the day, T-Bone Studios) for a showing of work by the dancer/choreographer Anna Krzystek and the filmmaker Lucy Cash. It was one of the most enthralling and exciting evenings out I've had in a long while.

Still is a 45-minute piece which places a solo performer (Krzystek) in a room with five video monitors (showing material by Cash) and a sound artist, Tom Murray, live-mixing a prepared score. Sitting, as it does, exactly on the virgule between installation and performance, or standing on both sides of it perhaps, it is partly an excercise in the manipulation of attention: a performer drawing and giving away attention, as well as giving it herself to the other elements of the piece, which she uses partly to orient herself. The body starts out as barely-present and somewhat object-like, but slowly (and expensively) uses the currents of spectatorial attention in the room to claim a constrained expressivity. The video images show views of and isolated elements within a room not dissimilar to the one we are actually in, but not the same; the domestic character and details of the video room also participate in the exercise of drawing and dispelling attention. In common with Krzystek's previous piece, which I didn't see, one theme is waiting: and she speaks eloquently and intriguingly afterwards about how the domestic objects that the camera dwells on are also 'waiting' -- for human intervention: the telephone waiting to ring, the lamp waiting to be switched on, the plug socket in the wall... There is a warmth to this which somewhat alleviates a (by no means unattractive) starkness in the rest of the aesthetic. The sound score mostly consists of penetrating sines, introduced, subtly altered (e.q., I think, and certainly panning) and then withdrawn; there is a structral matrix determining much of the activity, a series of time regions and of tasks, five sections of nine minutes, each further subdivided in interlocking frames.

There is a remarkable formal clarity to the piece which comes across strikingly even before the structure is explained, but also a deeply human(e) tenor. The sense of effort, of slight confusion, of loss of centre, of submission, in the performer is cumulatively moving and important. One particularly touching repeated gesture is the abrupt withdrawal of the electronic sound at some moments, at which points very often Krzystek's exhausted breathing is suddenly audible, both rhythmically continuous with the geometries of the piece and infinitely more faulty and therefore more intimate. Long periods of near-stillness and near-silence near the end, which demand as much of the audience as of both performers, are followed by a condensed, slightly puzzling coda which brilliantly reclaims some measure of privacy for the authors, lest the plain legibility, the near-transparency, of much of the activity should too quickly allow the complex human agency in the work to be dissipated or undervalued. It is exactly the right ending to exactly the right piece.

Cash's two short films are also, to some degree, about rooms, and about (fallibly) human negotiations with the behavioural grammars and associative lexis that rooms themselves imply. The first, Daynightly they re-school you The Bears -- Polka, is a twin-screen versioning of material from the 2005 performance When will the September roses bloom? Last night was only a comedy by the near-legendary Chicago performance company Goat Island (who are to split next year -- a very sad though utterly commendable arrangement), in which the company's fondness for dance sequences created out of discrete found images and acts is characteristically layered with other textual gestures and fragments (taken partly from Celan) and comedically organized relationships, creating a high-stakes network of inscrutable and yet oddly sustainable proto-narratives. The second, Sight Reading, is a more unified but no less enigmatic speculation around early 20th c. experiments into "eyeless sight" -- seeing extra-retinally, reading through the skin. It is always too easy to describe non-linear film as 'poetic' but Cash's immensely assured sense of composition and metre suggests poetry or music just as much as it explores the capacity of the specifically filmic object to contain irresolvable ambiguities and extremely partial or sketchy dynamic arguments. The constant movement between fluidity and repetitiousness, and the invocation of secluded compulsions and unknowable regulations -- features just as much of the exquisite and sympathetic choreography by Ole Birkeland -- all recalls the Quay Brothers of Institute Benjamenta, while the exceptionally poised attention to detail and to metonymic study draws perhaps from Bresson: but I've never seen anything quite like Sight Reading, all the same. It is warmer and more accessible than perhaps I've made it sound: a puzzle but not a nag.

A concluding discussion led by the filmmaker Miranda Pennell was generously illuminating, finding its own pitch and pace and acutely focused on unfolding rather than pinning-down, and on the expansive (and the searching) rather than the competitive. I could have happily sat there for the rest of the evening, listening and talking and enjoying.


From Toynbee Studios I walked directly to Liverpool St and the home train. On the seat I took, somebody had left -- how could they? -- their free Evening Standard supplement itemising 'The 1000: London's most influential people 2007'.

If, somehow, this ace piece of commentary passed you by, here are the most influential London-based theatre-persons of this year, in the order in which they appear:

The top 5: Nicholas Hytner, Alan Bennett, Judi Dench, Peter Thompson (PTA Associates), Dominic Cooke.

The rest: Michael Boyd, Michael Billington, Nicholas de Jongh, Charles Spencer, David Hare, Bill Kenwright, Rufus Norris, Lord Lloyd-Webber, Harold Pinter, Cameron Mackintosh, Stephen Daldry, Tom Morris, Ian McKellen, Maggie Smith, Sonia Friedman, Nicolas Kent, Michael Frayn, Kevin Spacey, Tom Stoppard, Vanessa Redgrave, Katie Mitchell.

Up and coming: Polly Stenham, Matt Smith (actor), Rupert Goold.

It may be worth noting that the list is compiled by a panel of ES brass and a team of "specialist contributors", of whom those who presumably had a hand in the above selection are Fiona Hughes, Louise Jury and, er, Nicholas de Jongh. Apologies if any of those three were not in fact involved in the theatre bit; I exempt them from any opprobrium that may, who knows?, follow.

OK, well, let's start with the bleedin obvious. There is no point expecting an Evening Standard supplement (as part of a risibly blatant attempt to refresh the brand and nudge it back up-market, away from the slug-low, subliterate freesheets) to be a pin-sharp analysis of the tendencies of influence in London theatre, any more than one would expect the work-experience cloakroom attendant at a lambada contest to discuss the movers and the shakers in contemporary ballet or a scabby cat in a cardboard box to produce a Powerpoint presentation on salient trends in the world of haute couture.

Nor is it a totally ridiculous list, obviously, if by influential we actually mean powerful and prominent. What director of the National Theatre wouldn't merit a place, for heaven's sake? (Answers on a postcard marked 'Trevor Nunn Competition' to the usual address, please.) Who could deny the significance of Baron Loud-Warbling, the clout of Cameron Makingtosh, or the bountiful phenomenon that is dog-loving Kevin "Here boy!" Spacey?

But. But. There are obviously other names on the list that would at the very least make anybody with a professional interest in theatre question the model of 'influence' that the Standard is working with. 'Icons', to borrow an overworked word, they may be, but on whom do Maggie Smith or Vanessa Redgrave nowadays exert an influence? (Especially with Loose Ends presumably being faded Nedlessly to black at the end of its current run.) I suppose the answer's completely obvious: West End audiences with more money than sensibility, and the time-harried editors of colour supplements. But can any actor currently under the age of 35 really be looking to either of those great dames for information on stage performance? To how many agenda-setting playwrights is Alan Bennett exemplary (at an artistic level, I mean; I imagine his commercial acuity is inspiring to some, and his national pedestal to others)?

In that context, the extraordinarily duff stroke of classifying Rupert Goold as "up-and-coming" seems all the more bizarre, or, I suppose, totally predictable. Maybe three years ago, yes; but Goold's track record now, his industry, his apparently unflagging intelligence, and the white heat of his ascendance, make him surely one of the very most influential directors in the country right now, insofar as he is surely drawing the attentions of other directors and theatre artists, both older and younger than him, who recognize his qualities (rather than contenting themselves with some vague sense of his 'promise') and aspire to similar heights. In terms of the ecology of British theatre, Goold is right now influential in a way that, for example, Stephen Daldry surely hasn't been for some time.

See also the Standard's grudging comments on two of the (few) other genuinely influential figures on the list in respect of the artform right now. Tom Morris has possibly "too much ... clout" at the National, though he is, sapristi!, "pioneering multimedia forms of theatre" (...but that'll never catch on, surely?!); Katie Mitchell's "latest fad" [for, er, multimedia] "could drive her into an unrewarding cul-de-sac". (Surely An Unrewarding Cul-de-Sac is the title of Alan Bennett's next-but-one volume of memoirs and occasional pieces?) If influence is about having some suasive impact on the shape of the artform as it continues to develop, surely Morris and Mitchell are absolutely critical presences, whose importance only slightly resides in the particular aesthetics of their current or last productions. They're important because of the kind of attitudes and aspirations they represent. (In which light perhaps the list's most glaring omission is obvious: how about Lyn Gardner in place of our esteemed triumvirate of DWM's? And why no one from ACE, while we're at the acronyms?)

All of this commentary is saying nothing new, of course, it's just gum-gnashing at a bit of toady natter-jack with 'landfill in 72 hours' written all over it : but in the aftermath of the Artsadmin showings, I did want to get at least as far as this point -- not by any means, I think, new to the Thompsonian baileywick, but worth restating, so as to make the WHOLE WORLD feel to me a bit less depressing before I throw in tonight's towel: that the really pernicious and retrograde aspect of the Evening Standard list is not who's in or who's out, we can play that wretched game till the cows come home, freshen up, call their mates, meet up for a Thai, get smashed on pina coladas, head up west and end up going back with Anthony Costa to his luxury penthouse flat for an ill-advised "nightcap".

No, what bugs me is that the model of 'influence' that they use and endorse is so inadequate. The real picture is -- sure -- incredibly complicated, but the basic tendencies of it are important and, I think, unarguable: that influence in any meaningful (by which I mean productive) sense is not 'bestowed' by the mighty on the jostling many, because those 'with' influence are not its generators. No, it is a by-product of attentiveness, and as such it arises in audiences, and particularly (of course) in specialist audiences. The best makers -- the most attentive makers -- produce, as audiences, the effects of influence within themselves. And one consequence of this, which must surely be recognizably true to anyone with half an eye on the industry as a whole, is that at least as much of the flow of influence is, as it were, uphill, from the unknown to the known, the pioneering to the powerful, the experimentalists to the establishment.

Lest the idea of an uphill current disturb you, or put you too much in mind of the exertions of salmon (a truly devoted & disgruntled constituency if every there was one), may I reintroduce the spatial reimagining I gleaned from the great Wobbly storyteller U. Utah Phillips? Loyal Thompson's customers will know that, rather than fiddle-faddling about with labels such as 'experimental' or, saints preserve us, 'avant-garde', I sometimes have recourse to Phillips's language of 'mainstream' and 'upstream':

"To hell with the mainstream. It's polluted. What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness where the pure water flows."

His pollution vs. purity schtick is, though somewhat true, off-topic here. But the general topology of this analysis feels to me irrefutable. Katie Mitchell's current working language has clearly been renewed and refreshed by makers up in the wilderness; Tom Morris's greatest strength and value has always been his willingness to range up-hill as well as down dale in pursuit of whatever's next. I don't doubt for a second that the current collaboration between Filter and David Farr is a manifestation of the same tendency: obviously Farr is hardly a grand old man himself but he's smart enough to recognize that he can be stimulated and challenged by getting himself in a room with a youngish company whose identity is still forming and who presumably, in turn, are excited by newer groups emerging in their wake at, say, BAC.

This is obvious but it demands restating, in the light not just of this Evening Standard exercise but also of the Artsadmin showings with which I began. How many of us were there to see Still and Sight Reading? I don't know, maybe thirty: half of whom, probably, if not more, were artists. But that's where (in a sense) it all begins: and I think it's terrifically important that artists such as Krzystek and Cash are acknowledged and hailed for their, as it were, ecological significance; and that such mini-gatherings of kindred artists and close friends should not be denigrated for their apparent insularity or hermeticism: a kind of judgement that is levelled not only by halfwit commentators but also, more or less overtly, by ACE, which continues to use 'public benefit' as a criterion for assessing projects for funding, with very little apparent understanding of how, and when, and where, such benefit is activated or manifested. Of course these trickle-down (or, perhaps, rather, trickle-up) effects are untraceable, except anecdotally, and, moreover, ultimately unmanageably complex.

Public benefit, after all, is itself a species of influence, and it too occurs chaotically, as an unpredictable and unchartable net of meaning-generative encounters, of people, touching, instants. All of us know this first-hand. Yes, Simon McBurney has influenced me, Robert Lepage has influenced me. (And Lepage has clearly influenced McBurney, and McBurney has influenced Brook, and Brook has influenced, I dunno, the Buddha, and on and on the artistic Slinky tumbles its way freakily upstairs.) But what about the poets, the visual artists, the filmmakers? On the train today I was thinking about the importance of layering in my work, and wondering where it came from. Most likely, I think, Mike Oldfield. Or, every so often a line in my art-writing catches my eye and I think: Prynne? No. Beckett? No. Ah, yes: it's Kenny Everett.

And then what about those who frame the lives we're trying to lead? How has theatre production changed in London since Ken Livingstone was installed as Mayor and began his radical overhaul of transport policy and charging? How many more people travel to work by bus, now, I wonder, and how many of them are going to work in a rehearsal room, and to what degree is their mood different when they arrive from what it might have been ten years ago? How does that change what is possible?

And the favourite godparents? Where are they accounted for? And the special English or art or science teachers? (Everybody has one.) And what about this ex-boyfriend, who broke my heart, or that one, who self-harmed, or that one, who wasn't really my boyfriend at all though I loved him more than any of them and could never bring myself to say it? And what about the view from the top of the Oxo tower? And the waterfowl in St James's Park? And the difference it makes to make notes with a decent fountain pen, or a 4B pencil, instead of some gnawed blue biro I found on the bus? And if the pleasure of a new soft pencil makes enough of a difference to my day that we solve a problem in rehearsal and I leave feeling happy enough that I smile at the work-experience cloakroom attendant at that evening's lambada contest, and she smiles back, does that count as +1 on the 'public benefit' scorecard?

This abundant efflorescence of speculated microcollaborations, this declaration of interdependence, is intended not to obscure or invalidate the whole notion of influence, for which we all, in the end, I suspect, have some use. It's to say that when we give such a partial account of our working practice and its cultural ramifications, even in haste or by way of shorthand, that its complexity is brushed aside and its continual built-in problematizing of falsified notions of prestige and artistic authority is censored, it's a betrayal of the audiences and the other artists who should properly be able to depend on us. If Nicky de Jongh is content with that sort of dereliction, I can but hope that the virgins who await him in the afterlife are all replicants of Dame Maggie and Dame Vanessa and Dame Kevin and such. He succeeds only in confirming his hopeless irrelevance, at least in relation to the bigger picture that it's our responsibility, yours and mine, to conceive.

[Incidentally, Theron Schmidt has an excellent review of Still at the Writing from Live Art blog: it was written independently of mine, and I guess at pretty much the same time, so the correspondences are quite pleasing. And let me also direct you offsite to an extremely fine post on the vexed and vexatious topic of political theatre over at Andy Field's blog; it feels to me that the above might be taken to abut, somewhat, his thesis -- with which, at any rate, I find myself utterly and very gratefully in agreement.]

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Tomorrow jingly dragoning

So here's the death-rattle of summer, like that indelible moment in late-80s Neighbours when the comatose ex-stripper Daphne regained consciousness just long enough to whisper "I love you, Clarkey" to her jug-eared bank-manager husband Des, before conking out and chucking her mortal prawn on the Elysian barbie.

In fact, you find the Controlling Thompson not far from flatlining himself. I'm in once-cool Portishead, where the Begetting Thompson today celebrates his 72nd birthday. True to form I'm failing (as massively as did Daphne's heart all those years ago) to do any of the work or the reading I brought with me: though I hope there's a Marmite-thin scrape of a legit excuse in the extraordinarily gripping quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup. Your doting correspondent is, as we know, hardly le coq sportif -- more Quorn au vin, really -- but it's weirdly engrossing to see a guy who, headband excepted, looks like an outsize version of something that may have been rotating decorously in a kebab shop window as recently as the night before, being summarily felled and stamped into the dirt by an even bigger guy who uncannily resembles a Marillion tribute band all glued together: and all this in multiplicate, over and over again for eighty minutes, until there's more blood and sputum flying around than you'll find at Kevin "Walkies" Spacey's next birthday party.

For the past few days I've had the odd sense that I've been waiting for a phone call. Way back towards the end of my schooldays, when much of my energy was being directed into writing exhaustingly urbane comedy sketches and cabaret songs and suchlike, the parent of a fellow pupil declared cheerily to my father that I would surely be "the next Ned Sherrin". Now that that post has fallen open -- and may I in passing add to the recent churn of encomia the modest observation that the one time I met Mr Sherrin I found him chilly, patrician and vain, though I wouldn't for a moment wish to denigrate the importance of his tv work in the 60s -- I'm rather expecting a summons to the Palace, or at least an invitation to Earl Grey and Fondant Fancies with Mark Damazer at Radio 4 HQ. (In fact I'm not entirely sure now that Sherrin didn't briefly have a World Service series called Fondant Fancies.) ...A few years later, by the way, another onlooker announced that I was clearly "the next Stephen Fry". My parents once again found themselves nodding graciously at the intended compliment, while no doubt rather wishing that somebody at some point might proclaim me "the next [Anybody Heterosexual]".

These days, by comparison, little reflected celebrity glory seems to come my way. I did enjoy, for a moment, the realization one day last week, at Liverpool St station toilets, that I was having a pee standing nearly adjacent to Ralph "Streets of London" McTell -- you can imagine how I longed to rush home and tell you all about it: adding mischievously that, contrary to his earlier pledge, Mr McTell hadn't, in fact, shown me something to make me change my mind. -- But, as I say, the pleasure was short-lived, as I slowly realised that it wasn't Ralph McTell after all. It was definitely a famous folkie, but I haven't yet been able securely to place the face. My best guess at this stage is Martin Carthy, but I'm not entirely sure. Anyway, as a result of all this, I have at least begun to feel better disposed towards the handful of middle-aged men who -- looking at once vigilant and slothful -- seem to hang around those toilets drying their hands for hours on end: perhaps they're merely trying to figure out whether the fellow in the grey mac really is Peter Sarstedt. Liverpool St gents is, I'm pretty sure, where Leigh Bowery was picked up for gross indecency or whatever, but I tend to feel whenever I call in to those facilities on my way home that, as per the recent Daily Show skit in the aftermath of the Larry Craig arrest, I'm doing something pretty gross and indecent by walking into the midst of a perfectly congenial sex party and taking a piss right there. Jesus H[umperdinck] Christ, the temerity.

All of this, you will be divining by now, is an extended preface to a big old zilch. I really have very little to report. My life as a small businessman -- selling 90s alt-rock CDs to other antisocial thirtysomethings, mostly living (in a state of low feculence, one fondly imagines) in Strathclyde and Tyne & Wear -- is temporarily suspended during the current series of postal strikes: but it's nice to have a few days' break from that, to be honest: the tedium of the packing process, in particular, seems mysteriously to cause me to listen to daytime Radio 2. Nothing says Mail Lite Peel 'n' Seal Bubble Envelopes like a playlist that's heavy on Travis.

And, one way and another, most of my plans for cultural consumption in recent days have drifted sadly aglay. The one expedition that proved immune to the pressures of outrageous fortune was taking in a really hearteningly lovely film called Rocket Science, about which I knew basically nothing in advance, except that it had been a nearly-ran on my list at the Edinburgh Film Festival this year, and it was now showing at the right sort of time of day at the right cinema. (viz. the Odeon Covent Garden: a good haunt, on the whole, if, like me, you prefer your daytime moviegoing to be largely unspoilt by the degrading presence of other people in the auditorium.) In a way Rocket Science is American indie-by-numbers -- it seems to be steering particularly close, in its early stages, to last year's (or was it 2005's?) likeable Thumbsucker. But its quirkiness and charm is immensely bolstered by some exceptional performances (not least from its wildly ingenuous star, Reece Daniel Thompson; but also from other young'uns Nicholas d'Agosto, Aaron Yoo, and the awesomely deadpan Josh Kay, making an extraordinarily confident film debut) and the smartest comic screenplay I've encountered in a long time. Definitely worth seeing, probably more than once: it'll disappear at the end of this week so if you don't get to it, keep an eye out for the DVD in due course.

As for my own artistic output, it's all gone a bit Gwen Guthrie again... (I don't mean I'm releasing a soul album; I mean, there really is very little going on, as it were, with the exception of the rent. Consequently, and let me be absolutely clear on this point, you got to have a j-o-b if, by any chance, you want to be with me. ...Oh, I'm sorry, I should have broken that to you more gently.) There are a couple of promising conversations beginning to unfold, but nothing that's going to bear fruit very imminently.

The order of the day, therefore -- and not for the first time -- is dwelling upon past glories: in which regard, may I direct you firstly to Dennis Cooper's blog, where Speed Death of the Radiant Child had its own little featurette a couple of weekends ago. As ever, it's hard to link to posts at DC's because they go up in multiple parts -- so the best course of action, if you're interested, is to go to the archive for September and scroll down about a quarter of the way, till you get to Saturday 22nd. Though, the usual caveat emptor for Dennis's place applies: there's hardcore pr0n posted to either side of the Speed Death stuff, as Persons both Unknown and Unwitting found, to their evident (and immensely sweet) discombobulation. If you can face with equanimity the terrors of the schlongfest -- as Kipling, no doubt, advised in an early draft -- then you might enjoy the Speed Death material, and perhaps above all the terrific photos by Manuel Harlan, which give a pretty good (if necessarily limited) sense of what the thing was like to watch.

And should that leave you hankering after another online eruption of my work, I'm happy to say that the fine folks at Meshworks -- Daniel Ereditario, in particular -- have uploaded a large assortment of video files to YouTube, including Peter Manson's reading of my poem "Virtual drive capacity in the problem bird", from No Son House, recorded during the Chicago Review tour earlier this year. (I linked to this clip a few weeks ago when it was up as a Quicktime movie at the Meshworks site, but a lot of people reported struggling to view it, and I have to admit I never got very far with it either.)

The whole Meshworks selection box at YouTube is really worth investigating: there are videos of some really wonderful and significant poets, including Tom Raworth, Martin Corless-Smith, Fanny Howe, Maurice Scully, Cathy Wagner, Jow Lindsay, and Tom Leonard. And perhaps most excitingly of all, from the same Chicago Review reading, Keston Sutherland, reading (in four substantial instalments) his mindblowing, facesucking 'Hot White Andy': of which this is the first section:

and you'll find the others here, here and here. The most challenging thing about Sutherland's work might perhaps be that for several years now one has been trying to mint convincing new superlatives with which to hail and advertise it. Robert Potts wrote a good, a really good, piece about K's stuff for Poetry Review four years ago or so; I don't have it to hand (and unfortunately the link to an online reprint at the Poetry Society's web site now redirects eerily to a pretty dismal, vanilla-ice homepage statement from PR's current editor, Fiona Sampson, who took over from Potts and David Herd in 2005), but if I remember correctly it uses the image of a gurney hurtling down a hospital corridor, being pushed through set after set of swing doors, to describe the relentlessness and the sometimes terrifying impact of Sutherland's project. (It's the only piece of poetry criticism that's ever made me cry.) In which case, can we, shall we, say that in 'Hot White Andy' we finally arrive at the emergency room? The precision, the sweat, the blood, the pounding urgency, sure: but is this state-of-the-art keyhole surgery, all monitor screens and Vivaldi soundtrack; or is it swingeing sawbones butchery, the lopping off of limbs and tossing around of human offal? Or is it both, each spitefully lied about in terms of the other? The extension of Keston's technique into a stronger confrontation than ever with synthetic language and prosthetic feeling creates an awful buzz, both harrowing and hilarious.

It's also irresistibly inspiring, and, I think, one of the reasons that I'm beginning to feel the first itch of a rapprochement with poetry, or rather with the idea that I might usefully apply myself to poetry again. A slightly nauseous itchy feeling, like the one which overtook me when, aged seven or so, I had the plastercast removed from a just-healed broken arm, to find that the cast had provided the perfect incubating conditions for chicken pox, which then broke out all over the rest of my body about two days later. I appreciate this declaration of nausea takes me disgustingly close to Sean O'Brien's statement, a couple of days ago, that his involvement with poetry could best be described as an "affliction" -- an assessment with which I suspect very few readers of interesting poetry would beg to differ: not least because it was provoked by O'Brien's receipt of his third Forward Prize in twelve years, an award bestowed on him by what one perceptive critic has called the "circle jerk committee". O'Brien, though, means to say that you can make a better living as a quantity surveyor (indeed, O'Brien's wretched pal and editor Don Paterson always seems to be trying to merge the two trades); in my case, the question of a sustainable "career" obviously doesn't even begin to come into it, and what I feel looming around the sense of new work being makeable from time to time is a kind of dread. It is not much fun, writing the kind of poetry I write. Not even the fun poems. But, sadly, it's the only available route (that I can think of) to having written a good poem: which I've done, I suppose, four or five times, and which is a deeply pleasurable, if slightly bewildering, sensation.

And it is certainly true that, for every revolting National Poetry Day jamboree or shallow and mendacious Poetry Review op-ed, there is an example of courage and integrity that seems to preserve within the massive sleazy flophouse of our literary culture some kind of room to breathe and to work discreetly and thoughtfully and without instant capitulation. But too often that example draws its proper attention in sad circumstances: as happened a couple of weeks ago with the death of the extremely distinguished and affectionately regarded poet and scholar Bill Griffiths. I hardly knew Bill, we exchanged a small handful of emails and I met him I think only twice: once when he came to CPT to read in the Sub Voicive series that Lawrence Upton was then curating; and once, in the summer of 2005, at the Poetry Buzz event in celebration of Allen Fisher's 60th birthday. His presence was solid, almost daunting, but his manner was exceptionally gentle and unassuming. I've never felt a really strong connexion with his work, though I like a lot of the (relatively) little I know; but the fronts of influence and lines of provocation are pretty tangled and hard to untie in this neck of the woods, and I dare say I've got much more from Griffiths, at one remove or more, than I currently know. Certainly he was a hero to several folks who are not far off heroes to me.

Here's a poem of Bill's that I got to know and like from the anthology Conductors of Chaos. I don't have the paper text to hand so I'll have to assume that the online version at BEPC is correct (an assumption one is always cautious of making when it comes to poetry on the web, no matter how diligent its transcribers and encoders). It looks ok, from what I remember.

from Reveries

but it will be
I will be
tomorrow jingly dragoning
the slim pea
beauteous rides bike-plant fence mensefully
brave seems lady-pod
flapping pink 'n' colour
(my passion to pebbles in the soil)
dank air-swift scented
am still con-/in-volved

clouds bring ghosts
not a gold-chain of justice for them from anywhere
soon they're soaked hellwards
root-life neutral
no obstat;
mikkl-daisy mauve rags, last benefitors.

all behind my sight
salmon-tintly bevolve
seeking why
mechanism-decay to end printing
over-dark-cold-dead rollers
and unspringy and stasis
I unlucky sneeze

but it will be
I will be
tomorrow jingly dragoning

& Bill can be heard reading that poem here: while there are recordings of an extended 2005 reading at the Archive of the Now, a site whose usefulness is once again re-demonstrated and ratcheted up in these touching circumstances.

Aside from the expected obits in the usual places, the most credible of which I guess is Will Rowe's for the Guardian, there are numerous tributes to Bill all over the web: Google him, basically; but I really liked this informal piece at Bill Sherman's blog, and a poignant note from Nate Dorward.

And now I'm writing this with one eye on the South Bank Show's 40th anniversary commemoration of Penguin Modern Poets #10, better known as The Mersey Sound, the anthology that launched the careers of Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. There is something pretty attractive about The Mersey Sound, though it's not, really, the poetry; perhaps it's that it emerges out of a time and a culture wherein poetry was made in a dynamic continuity with visual art and pop music, and was able to speak with some cogency for and to that especially fluid milieu. A time also when the popular and the experimental were, if not fully identical, then not at odds -- neither in fact nor in commentary around the fact -- which distinguishes it to some degree from the later cross-pollinations that characterised punk, say. It seems to me an ideal situation and I suppose one has to admit, a bit grudgingly, that it's probably still happening, right now, but in places where I'm not paying attention. (We need an update on Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture, really. And not from Andrew Duncan, ta.)

At this distance it's clear to see what the strengths were of the three Mersey Sound poets. Only Patten, really, is actually a hands-down poet; I've always found his work appealing, there's a quietness at its heart and a lack of tail-chasing self-consciousness that distinguishes his writing from the output of his confreres. Henri was clearly a splendid crossover artist and agent provocateur, and an enthusiast and advocate and bridgebuilder, and that's important; I'm not sure his poetry has all that much going for it away from its audience or his backing band or his own XXL showmanship. McGough is certainly best in those contexts where a generalised, vaguely sentimental "poetic" bent and a stand-up comic's ear give him a somewhat extended ambit by comparison with people who aren't poets: people feel affectionately about him when he pops up on Radio 4 or on QI partly because he is only ever-so-slightly more a poet than they are. That aside, I do think The Scaffold were probably an important and significant outfit. He seems pretty embarrassed by them, or by his work with them. Maybe that's the stigma by which you can tell that you were doing something useful at the time.

Adrian Mitchell, my teenage affection for whom has for some time been evaporating, pops up as a talking head to say how great it was that the Mersey Sound poets spoke "directly" to their audience, not wishing to bamboozle anyone with ambiguity. I think this slightly misrepresents all three poets, to differing degrees, but it also begs a whole stack of questions about what "directness" -- which I would agree is, in respect of some of its connotations at any rate, a worthwhile aspiration -- actually is, how it is signalled, where it is located. Is Roger McGough's mundanely expressed coyness about love relationships and homeopathically surrealised suburban moments really more direct than Keston Sutherland's strenuously candid, fiercely blazoned failure to articulate the unmanageable totality of our social relations? I suppose McGough's work is "direct" in the way that water comes "directly" out of a tap: the machinery of transport, filtration and (in some places) fluoridation is invisible; any sense of connection to the natural water cycle is generally suspended until some crisis of supply hits home. And similarly, the efforts of selective obstruction, occlusion and abstraction that support McGough's chirpy, laconic utterances are totally concealed. I'm surprised that a good socialist like Mitchell isn't concerned about that.

Which is not to say that poetic works cannot achieve something of the more demonstrably equitable directness of Sutherland's "Hot White Andy" without sharing that poem's sheerly complicated and abundant matrices of violently spanked language. Examples abound, from Samuel Menashe to Anthony Barnett to Thomas A. Clark and a baker's googol of points inbetween. One poet whose overtly "accessible" surfaces yield up in the face of even cursory attention a sense of felicitous complexity and inexhaustible resistance to reduction is Geoffrey Squires, to whose recent e-book So, at the Shearsman site, I've been meaning to link for ages.

This is the second of Squires's e-books for Shearsman, following last year's Lines, and it proceeds through very similar movements, but for what it's worth I think So perhaps the more successful in the slight, just-detectable tension between its radical open-ended subjunctivity and the feint ghost of discarnate logic that invigilates its procedures. The nearest voice (if 'voice' is quite the right idea) is probably Beckett, though that may depend on how quickly you turn the pages: a steady flip produces the insistent fidgeting of an idling mind worrying itself into a sort of fractal realm of language, with nearly-formed questions constantly becoming their own nearly-formed answers, divulging little but keeping the authorial consciousness in an immaculate but vertiginous holding pattern; a slower, more reflective reading, in which each of these phrases is permitted to sound more vertically, admits a meditative, potentially spiritual, tonality, which you'll find successful probably in some proportion to the dependability of your own sense of such operations and background narratives. (For me, that's a struggle.) The question that arises in respect of reading-speed is perhaps in itself instructive: I wonder, how long does the passage of this text represent? It's sort of an unaskable question, but if this movement within language unfolds over a lifetime, that is one thing, and if what these words add up to is a single fleeting thought, captured on the wing, that's something else: but perhaps that simply takes us back to the sense of falling through fractal layers, the instant that might in language be developed out into a fair account of a lifetime's activity in coming to terms with the liveable experience of consequence and inquiry.

It is, at any rate, exceptionally fine work; both books are. And both are free downloads -- along with a number of other titles at the same site, from an interesting range of extremely worthwhile poets, including Ken Edwards (whose fascinating Chaconne I can unreservedly recommend), Gautam Verma (whose patient and lovely Tombs I found quite moving in the end), Stephen Vincent, M T C Cronin, and the locally underrated John Muckle.

There is an incredible amount of truly good poetry around, really -- very little of it in the places it's supposed to be: and perhaps (unlike with theatre, dare I say it) one considers one's own projects with a slightly defeatist air simply because there is no real need for them. Nonetheless, until the Forward Prize freezes over, plugging away when the time feels right is probably the way to go.

And in the meantime... You may remember, if you were hereabouts, that a few months ago I declared that the doors of the Bank were to be flung open and that this blog would thenceforth be looking to host other presences and channel other voices from time to time. You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you? Well, no, I've just been far too busy watching Win My Wage and grilling the occasional vegetarian sausage. But this weekend (d.v.) I'll be launching a new thread here at the Bank called Deposit Box, wherein, every two weeks or so, there'll be a bit of work by an invited poet or writer or artist -- generally, unpublished stuff that is unlikely to find accommodation elsewhere. Very happily, there's already some extremely fine work in the queue, which I look forward to sharing with you.